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We all know the economic and ecological disasters of the Soviet era. What has perhaps not been stressed enough is the moral and intellectual collapse of the regime. One reason for this is that for more than half a century the whole system had, as a major characteristic falsification on an enormous scale. History, production figures, census results—all were faked. Even more demoralizing, the whole sphere of thought was controlled and distorted.
As truth penetrated, it became increasingly the case that only the stupidest and most abject could really accept this delusional world. One of the most difficult things to convey to a Western audience is how disgusting the rank and file of the old Soviet ruling class really were—how mean, treacherous, shamelessly lying, cowardly, sycophantic and ignorant. ... the Soviet system underwent a long process of decay.
The political situation in the former Soviet Union .... the people there are rid of Marxism-Leninism. They may not quite know what they want. But they know what they don’t want....It was the ideas possessing the minds of the Leninists that caused the disasters ... has the lesson been learned here in the West? ... A not inconsiderable number of members of the West’s elite were to one degree or another deceived, or self-deceived, about the communist regime. Some saw it as, in all essentials, more advanced than ourselves. This view was mainly held by “idealists.” Others argued that the USSR was a normal state, one like any other, and that it should be treated as such. This view was mainly held by "pragmatists." Both were wrong: far from being advanced, it was based on an archaic fantasy; far from being normal, it was a revolting aberration.
One reason for such delusion was factitiousness. Argument in America about the nature of Sovietism became confused, quite illogically, with internal liberal-conservative disputes....Many were seduced by the comfortable word “socialism,” even to the extent of rejecting the Western Ideas of free discussion, political compromise, plural society, piecemeal practicality and change without chaos. Moreover, this socialism carried with it the primitive belief that the state could solve all problems. Connected with this, the other great lesson of the Soviet regime is, of course, the destructive effect of a pervasive bureaucracy. It is clear that this lesson has not been learned, or not adequately so. Examples proliferate from the European Community bureaucracy in Brussels to General Motors in Detroit.
Parochialism played a major part in the self-deception, usually involving an ignorance of world history. Admirers of the Soviets could not believe that a regime could kill millions of its own subjects. The decimation of the peasantry because it would have been "economically counterproductive" could not have happened: just as, presumably, Tamerlane could not have built that pyramid of 70,000 skulls.
Nevertheless, work such as my own was for long by no means slandered, seldom even rejected, except by a few sub-Stalinists (and oddballs like Jerry Hough). It was only in the mid-1980s that a more or less concerted “revisionist” effort began in Sovietological academe. The revisionists argued, in effect, that there had never been much of a terror, against either the peasantry or the population as a whole, and that what there was had been of little importance compared with administrative and personnel changes. Moreover, they accepted the facts and figures provided by the Soviet authorities as truthful.
Historians” with little knowledge of history believed Soviet documents. Demographers with little knowledge of the Soviet Union believed Soviet census figures. Bad timing! It was precisely at this juncture that Moscow started to make the facts public, and the whole enterprise collapsed amid general contempt."
How do fanaticism and dogmatism of, or resembling, the Soviet type arise? Often at the age of 18 or 20, a student meets some such glittering general idea and, far from feeling any responsibility to submit it to serious questioning, henceforward follows it like a duckling imprinted with its mother. Is this adequately discouraged? Is the student induced to think, to aim for intellectual responsibility; to seek knowledge and practice judgment; to avoid formulas?
I am afraid that much of the education we now find does not, to put it mildly, even approach these criteria. Indeed, it is an educated, or half-educated, stratum whose minds are still infested with what in the language of computers we would call viruses, which distort their calculations.
It has been wisely said that the two great causes of human troubles are impatience and laziness. Intellectually, these are precisely the phenomena that produce such destructive fantasies. Ideological quick fixes for all intellectual and social problems are sought, rather than an understanding of their real complexities. The Soviet Union was a proving ground for such approaches. We in the West still have much to learn, and to unlearn, from the events in the former communist countries.
The frightful slaughter of the thirties was not, like the terrors of Lenin and Robespierre, launched in time of crisis and war. It was not even done - like Stalin's own liquidation of the kulaks - for misconceived but at any rate debatable ends. On the contrary it was launched in the coldest of blood, when Russia had at last reached a comparatively calm and even moderately prosperous condition.
The Purge was not a sudden and total surprise. It had its roots in the Soviet past. It would doubtless be false to argue that it followed inevitably from the nature of Soviet society and of the Communist Party. It was itself a means of enforcing violent change upon that society and that party. But all the same it could not have been launched except against the extraordinarily idiosyncratic background of Bolshevik rule; and its special characteristics, some of them hardly credible to foreign minds, derive from a specific tradition. The dominating ideas of the Stalin period, the evolution of the oppositionists, the very confessions in the great show trials, can hardly be followed without considering not so much the whole Soviet past as the development of the Party, the consolidation of the dictatorship, the movements of faction, the rise of individuals and the emergence of extreme economic policies. Moreover, Lenin had established within the Party all the seeds of a centralised bureaucratic attitude. The Secretariat, long before Stalin took it over, was transferring Party officials for political reasons. In destroying the 'democratic' tendency within the Communist Party, Lenin in effect threw the game to the manipulators of the Party machine. As Lenin lay in the twilight of the long decline from his last stroke, they were already at grips in the first round of the struggle which was to culminate in the Great Purge. From the point of view of the purges, the period from July 1935 to August 1936 was to all outward appearances something of an idyllic interlude. There were no deaths of Politburo members, no trials of important oppositionists, no removals of leading political figures. The harvest too, was reasonably good. Moreover, it was announced, that the purge of the Party ordered in 1933 was now complete.
The draft of a new Constitution had been occupying the minds of Bukharin and Radek, as the active members of the Commission set up for the purpose in February1935. It was ready in June 1936, and Bukharin, in particular, thought of it as a document which would make it impossible for the people any longer to be 'pushed aside'.
...The last serious pretense that persuasion, or even economic pressure, was to be the method of enforcing the Party will on the peasantry has disappeared. Pure force, a frontal assault, was the chosen method. Without serious preparation or planning on the economic side, the Party was launched into a civil war in the rural areas. It as the first great crisis of the Stalin regime, and it marks the beginning of a whole new era of terror.
Between January and March 1930, the number of peasant holdings brought into the collective farms increased from 4 million to 14 million. Over half of the total peasant hold holds had been collectivized in five months. And in the countryside the peasants fought back with 'sawed-off shotgun, the axe, the dagger, the knife.' At the same time, they destroyed their livestock rather than let if fall into the hands of the State.
In any other political system, this would have been the moment for the opposition to stand forward. They had been proved right. And support for the Rightist leadership sprang up spontaneously in Party branches all of the country. Among the people as a whole, they were of course stronger still. But to this vast potential support, Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov gave no lead. On the contrary, they went out of their way to say that to come out against 'the Party,' especially with the support of peasants, was unthinkable. So Stalin's policy defeat was accompanied by a political victory. Tomsky was removed from the Politburo in July 1930, and Rykov in December. Henceforth, it was purely Stalinist.
Stalin, though retreating, had not given up his plans for collectivization. He now proposed to bring it into being over a longer period----by means just as inhuman but not so ill-prepared. Everywhere in the countryside, the Party, faced with a hostile peasantry, regrouped and prepared further desperate action.
But is was not until 1988 that, on this as on other aspects of Stalinism, full accounting of the impact, the method, and the motives appeared in Soviet publications. The deaths in the terror-famine cannot have been lower than 6 to 7 million. The death toll among the peasantry over the whole period 1930 to 1933 is given in the recent Soviet literature as around 10 million---higher than the dead of all the belligerents put together in the First World War. That is, it was all on a scale as large as that of the subsequent "Great Terror." ...
There seems little doubt that the main issue was simply crushing the peasantry, and the Ukrainians, at any cost. One high official told a Ukrainian who later defected that the 1933 harvest 'was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who is master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We have won the war, 'In fact, we find that mass terror was now already in existence in the countryside, and thousands of police and Party officials has received the most ruthless operational experience."
The extent of the long-drawn-out Stalin terror is now at last being fully and irrefutably demonstrated. The key question remains, how many suffered?
The scent had been confused by the Soviet census of the period. The results of a census taken in January 1937 were suppressed and members of the Census Board were shot as ``a serpent's nest of traitors in the apparatus of Soviet statistics,'' who had ``exerted themselves to diminish the
Reasonably accurate estimates of the numbers sent to the labor camps have been available for forty years at least. But they were based on evidence that, though varied and cumulative, came from defectors, escapees, Poles, and others ill-affected to the regime: so they were rejected. They still are, by a few Western (mostly American) academics. This year, Soviet accounts by the dozen confirm them.
A Moscow scholar prominent in the field estimates 15 million peasants were deported to the Arctic in 1930-2, two million of the able-bodies males among them to the forced-labor camps. (My deportation estimate in The Harvest of Sorrow, 1986, was ten to 12 million.) At least a third of them are believed to have perished. Then Moscow has published the figure of six million dead (I made it around seven million) for the terror famine of 1933, now referred to bluntly as a ``murder-famine,'' ``artificial,'' and ``consciously'' planned. Figures indicating seven to eight million arrests in 1937-38 have also appeared; 17 million in the labor camps over the whole period have been put forward; 16 million post-Stalin rehabilitations have been mentioned publicly. And at least a million executions for 1937-38 (not counting executions inside camps) have been given -- the same figure as my own, reached in 1968. But in now looks, from other Soviet evidence, that this may be an underestimate.
For the Kuropaty NRVD execution site has been discovered outside the Byelorussian capital, Minsk. The Soviet estimate of the bodies in mass graves in the area already examined was 102,000; but the chief investigator has just published an estimate of 250,000 to 300,000 for the whole site. And this for
The Russian poet and Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Brodsky, has written that Westerners simply cannot face the idea of a regime (a ``socialist'' one too) that killed tens of millions of innocents, so they turn their indignation against the ``mustachioed colonels'' and other comprehensible targets. In
It does indeed require such an effort to understand the enormity of the blow to the consciousness of the Soviet peoples, the hideous effect of the vast slaughter, of year after year of fear, of forced falsification, of denunciation and treachery. For when we register the millions of dead, we must also recall that even larger numbers underwent various phases of the terror and just survived. One Soviet article, in a government organ, has already stated that in the terror against the peasantry, in 1930-33, 25 million people were ``dead or half-alive'' and that ``no fewer'' suffered in the post-1937 phases. Another tells us that even for the ``few'' who did not have relatives arrested, extreme fear penetrated their whole existence. The effect has not yet worn off.